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'Like a bad dream': Family remembers youngest person in Gregg County to die from COVID-19

WHITE OAK — Carolyn Harper picked up a large framed photo off the mantle at her daughter’s house. In the photo was her son, Gordon Lee Harper, as a high school senior almost 20 years ago.

“This is my favorite picture of him,” Carolyn, 56, said with a crack in her voice.

On July 22, Gordon, 37, died of complications from COVID-19. His family is trying to cope with the loss of their son, brother and uncle.

“I haven’t been doing too good,” Carolyn said, sniffling back tears. “One minute I’m OK, the next minute I’m not ... I still think he’s gonna walk through the door and tell me, ‘Mom, I’m OK. Don’t cry.’ I know it’s not gonna happen, but I feel like this is a bad dream.”

“Somebody can give condolences, but you can only hear it so many times before you become numb to people saying ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I’m praying for you,’ ” said Gordon’s sister, Rena Cunningham, 32.

He is the youngest person to die from COVID-19 in Gregg County.


Gordon was born in Corpus Christi to Jeff and Carolyn Harper and raised by Carolyn and Terry Gage, whom he called his dad.

“That was his daddy,” Carolyn said. “Terry raised him from the age of 2 years old until the day he died.”

Gordon played sports, including football, and graduated from Big Sandy High School in 2001.

He worked many types of jobs over the years but most recently worked at Jaguars club in Longview as a DJ.

“The girls out there really had a lot of respect for him,” Carolyn said. “The dancers, he protected them and he watched out for them.”

In his spare time, Gordon enjoyed movies, camping, fishing, listening to music and travelling.

Family and friends described him as genuine, loving, generous, funny, good-natured, protective and “just the best.”

“He was a big teddy bear,” Carolyn said of Gordon, who was known as Gordy. “He would give you his last dollar. He was the kind of friend you could call in the middle of the night if you needed a ride home, and he’d go get you.”

On June 22, Gordon traveled to Galveston with friends. He began feeling symptoms less than a week later, and he was hospitalized July 2 when he started to cough up blood.

Carolyn said she would call him two or three times a day to check on him.

“I mean, I’m sure all the nurses got tired of me, but like I told them, this is my baby,” she said.

Rena and her family had a scheduled vacation to North Carolina in mid-July. Gordon told her to go anyway and that he would see her when they got back. They talked over video chat, and she dropped off a Coke Zero, one of his favorite drinks, at the hospital.

“I told him I love him, and that was the last time I really talked to him because a day, two days after that he was put on a ventilator and couldn’t talk,” she said.

Gordon asked his Facebook followers to drop off a Coke Zero for him as he went into ICU quarantine July 12.

A day later, Gordon wrote his last Facebook post, saying “I need all your prayers. They are incubating me for repository failure. I will not be able to reply.”

It seemed as if he was getting better but then took a turn. Mother and son even saw each other through FaceTime when he was on a breathing machine and could not speak.

Carolyn said she felt in her heart toward the end that he might not make it. Not long after, the family was called to come to the hospital.

When they arrived, doctors and nurses pulled Carolyn aside into a private room.

“I said, ‘Don’t tell me my Gordy is dead,’ you know, not my baby,” Carolyn said. “And they didn’t really say anything. They didn’t need to say anything because we already knew. I mean there’s nothing they really could have said to help.”

Rena said the condition may have caused blood clots, leading to cardiac arrest.

“Well, it’s not just because of the COVID. It’s also because of his underlying condition with his Type 2 diabetes,” she said. “His overall health just wasn’t the best and, you know, that makes the COVID worse.”

The family said the treatment and illness wore on his body.

“When we saw him in the casket, it was pretty scary,” Rena said. “(COVID) takes a huge toll on your body —not just inside but outside. He didn’t look like my brother.”

Rena said she could tell he was in a lot of pain and believes Gordon knew he might not leave the hospital.

“I think that’s probably why he told us, me and my husband, to go ahead and take the kids on a vacation to let them rest and have some fun because I think he knew,” Rena said.

Gordon was an organ donor, but those wishes could not be granted because of his COVID diagnosis.

Family and friends

Gordon had a special bond with his niece and nephews, his family said. When Rena’s daughter, Rozy Warlick, was born, he stayed in the hospital with her all night.

On Friday, Rozy, 8, walked over to her mother and grandmother on the couch and climbed up onto her mother’s lap.

“When I went to the funeral and I saw Uncle Gordy, I was crying and I felt sad that I don’t get to see him anymore,” she said.

Gordon took Rozy to her first father-daughter dance when she was 5 years old, Carolyn said.

“He was there when she was born,” Carolyn said. “He loves her.”

After the funeral service, Rena and some of Gordon’s friends went to his grave site, sharing a few beers as they told stories about him.

“Most of the stories I could tell probably aren’t newspaper appropriate,” Rena said, laughing.

Carolyn said she was overwhelmed by the memories his friends shared of him.

“I didn’t know, I didn’t realize that my son impacted so many people’s lives,” she said.

Family friend Nathan Davis dedicated a song — “Bleed Red” by Ronnie Dunn — to Gordon.

“It was always the song that my brother would ask him to sing at karaoke,” Rena said.

Davis posted the song to YouTube and shared it on Facebook.

Gordon lived in Longview with a roommate who also became sick with COVID-19, Carolyn said. Randy Carlson, 65, who also was a friend of Carolyn’s, died from virus-related complications a week after Gordon.

Carolyn and Rena said families who are dealing with a family member sick with COVID should pray.

“Keep your faith that they’re going to pull through,” Carolyn said. “If you don’t, that negativity will eat you up.”

Barton: I know firsthand the importance of COVID-19 safety

Editor’s note: Reporter Kristen Barton writes about her experience after she was diagnosed with COVID-19.By Kristen Barton

On July 10, I clocked out of work ready to have the next week off. I planned to go see my cousins and their new baby the next day with my mom and grandma.

After returning from my trip July 13, I had a sore throat I attributed to allergies. When I woke up two days later, I was exhausted. I couldn’t even make coffee before I had to lay back down.

Within two hours, my temperature hit 101, and I had a heart rate of 160. I drove myself to Hospitality Health ER in Longview and waited in my car.

Nurses came to my car to check my vitals and then took me to a tent for an EKG since my heart rate was so high. They swabbed me for COVID-19 — which came back positive — gave me vitamins, medications, fluids and an antibiotic in an IV as I sat in my car (something so unique to the times we are living in.)

I was eventually taken to a different tent to get a CT scan on my lungs, then moved inside to wait for a room to become available.

I can’t say enough how thankful I am for the nurses and patient advocates I had at Hospitality Health ER. While I was freaking out, they explained everything they were doing to treat me and comforted me when I couldn’t have any friends or family at my side. They brought me food and a change of clothes and were available to me in a time when I was truly scared and did not know what was going to happen.

I kept thinking, “If this virus can make my temperature and heart rate spike as high as it did in two hours, what can it do to me in two days?” And even worse, I kept thinking about all the family I had seen in the past few days. Even though I had no symptoms when I visited my cousins, I would have to tell them I exposed them to this nightmare of a virus. How on Earth was I going to tell my cousin and his wife, who I love, that their baby was exposed to COVID-19?

The virus hit me like a truck.

I wore a mask everywhere I went. I limited my social gatherings. I’ve been working from home since sometime in March. I only do grocery pick-up, and I haven’t been to any concerts or large parties. And it wasn’t enough to protect myself. I still have no idea where I contracted the virus.

At around 2 a.m. in the Hospitality Health ER room, I woke up to have my IV changed and do an oxygen treatment.

My mom walked into my room. At first, I thought she was being stupid and had just insisted on seeing me even though she could get sick.

Then I realized the nurses were preparing a bed for her. I can’t describe the guilt and panic I felt in that moment, but I can say it is nothing compared to a few days later when my grandma tested positive as well.

The doctor spoke to my mom and I the next morning before releasing us. He said we could quarantine together at my apartment, and he was prescribing us antibiotics and other medications, vitamins and an inhaler. We would need to stick to a plant-based diet to fight any inflammation and help with the body aches (I’m not sure if this is something every doctor dealing with COVID-19 patients prescribes, but we did it and had very few body aches, so I would recommend it to someone with this virus).

Over the next few days, we experienced strange symptoms. Both of us had a cough, trouble catching our breathe at times, and what I can only describe as eyeball pain. Moving our eyeballs hurt. We could both only look straight ahead without being in pain. While we never lost our taste, my mom did lose her sense of smell. My fever went away at Hospitality Health ER, but it took days for my mom’s temperature to become normal.

The fatigue is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Just taking my dog out or doing the dishes was so exhausting that I needed to lay down and rest. My mom and I alternated making meals, but we ended up not eating as much as we probably should have because preparing food was too tiring.

I feel guilty saying I was glad to have my mom with me. Of course, I wouldn’t wish this virus on anyone, but I can’t imagine enduring this alone. When we were able to stay awake, we watched “Gilmore Girls” or movies. Her company kept my anxiety at bay.

My family and I are mostly recovered now, but still quarantining to be sure we’re not contagious. We’re very lucky that none of us required extended hospitalization or had other complications.

I’m lucky to have family and friends who left food at my door, went to the grocery store and picked up medications for us and sent us gift cards for food. Not everyone who contracts this virus is so lucky.

COVID-19 is unlike anything I’ve experienced. It’s been more than two weeks since I came home from Hospitality Health ER, and the smallest tasks still exhaust me.

This is not “a hoax.” It’s not something the media is making up numbers about to scare readers. This is a real virus with real pain that is hurting people and their families.

My mom, Barbara Barton, is an administrator at St. Mary’s Catholic School. She is preparing to welcome students back to campus in just a few weeks. All our local schools are doing what they can with the state guidance to open schools safely for your children, teachers and administrators. So please, if your child has symptoms or is exposed, keep them home. Please do what you can at home to teach them about social distancing, keeping their hands to themselves and wearing a mask.

Following public health guidelines is the bare minimum of what we can do to keep our community safe.

Longview hospitals say they're meeting COVID-19 demand, expect another surge

As local hospitals continue to care for a surge in patients from the second wave of COVID-19, officials at Christus Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview can see another wave on the horizon.

When fall and winter arrive, people will be indoors more because of the weather. Schools will be back in session.

It’s likely there will be increased spread of the coronavirus, said Dr. Mark Anderson, chief medical officer for Christus Good Shepherd Health System.

“When that happens, we’re likely to see another surge,” he said. “The question is, how much. That’s the unpredictable part. … I think we all know that we can expect to have this for many more months into the future.”

On June 30, Gregg County Health officials reported there were a cumulative 381 COVID-19 cases in the county since the disease showed up here in March. That number grew exactly 1,000 cases in the month of July to a cumulative 1,381 people positive for COVID-19 — an increase of 262% — with 276 recoveries reported, as of Friday.

Anderson said it’s possible the surge was related to the Fourth of July, but local health officials are starting to see a “flattening” in cases. He said the number of hospitalized patients has stabilized.

According to data previously reported by Longview Mayor Andy Mack, there were 77 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Longview on July 20. Data he reported showed that number almost hit 100 before dropping this past week. On Saturday, information on the Texas Department of State Health Services website showed there were 251 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the area that includes Marion, Harrison, Panola, Rusk, Shelby, Trinity, Gregg, Upshur, Cherokee, Freestone, Houston, Rains, Franklin, Van Zandt, Anderson, Henderson, Smith, Wood and Camp counties.

The illness has killed 22 Gregg County residents as of Saturday.

Anderson said there are “quite a few” patients hospitalized in a variety of conditions, with the numbers varying day to day. Those numbers are stabilizing, he said, adding that’s a trend that is in line with what health care officials are seeing around the region and state.

“We’re really not having any capacity issues around that particular body of patients,” he said, adding that Christus Good Shepherd’s intensive care unit is well-positioned and can be expanded to meet additional need. “If we’re lucky, we’re looking at some plateau.”

Todd Hancock, chief executive officer of Christus Good Shepherd Health System, said the Longview hospital’s ICU capacity is about 35 patients including surgical ICU.

“It’s a little bit of a misnomer to look at it strictly through the geography of it,” he said. “Hospitals like ours have a great capacity for surge capacity. Especially in this crisis we’re very prepared to expand that. ... With very little effort on our part we could double that capacity if the need arises.”

Also, he said the state has been “amazing” in terms of helping the hospital in a variety of ways.

The only possible limitation to increasing ICU space when needed, Hancock said, is the ability to staff it.

Some Christus Good Shepherd nurses in recent days have been using social media to promote a $20,000 sign-on bonus for intermediate and critical care nurses. Hancock said that even before the COVID-19 crisis, there was a shortage of critical care nurses — the people he described as on the frontline, working in the emergency rooms and intensive care units.

“As you can imagine, this crisis has only exacerbated that,” he said. “We are constantly searching for experienced, critical care nurses, as are all hospitals that are dealing with this. We continue to offer incentives to attract them and bring them to the community.”

Hancock noted that one thing that has been “extremely helpful” to the hospital is the community’s support for health care workers.

It’s been “amazing,” he said.

“I can’t tell you the number of employers in the community and the restaurants and businesses that have provided food and meals and support, and the letters and cards that have come into the hospital just encouraging (health care workers)” Hancock said.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis can become “very fatiguing” for health care workers.

“The outpouring has been truly humbling, and it has really been a sustaining effort for us that has been encouraging,”

The COVID-19 crisis that arrived here in March is “unprecedented,” Hancock said, and it has been taxing for physicians, nurses and other staff. However, Hancock said it’s been a “slow moving crisis.”

Anderson said that because Christus Good Shepherd is part of an international health care organization that has been planning for this since the illness arrived in the United States, the hospital had time to develop supply lines for personal protective equipment and to train and hire staff, he said.

Christus Good Shepherd and Longview Regional Medical Center officials are encouraging the public to follow all the guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“As cases of COVID-19 and patients requiring hospital care have risen in our community, our critical care capacity, at times, has been fully utilized,” said Libby Bryson, spokeswoman for Longview Regional. “We continually monitor our census and bed availability because it can change at any time as patients are admitted or discharged. We cannot stress enough how important it is for our community to continue to practice the guidelines suggested by the CDC. Practice social distancing, thorough and frequent hand washing, disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces, and stay home except when in need of medical care, including testing.”

Christus Trinity Clinic recently published an advertisement in the News-Journal also encouraging people to wear masks in public and to follow social distancing and hand washing

Christus Good Shepherd follows those practices, and they’re important to slow the spread of the illness until there’s a vaccine, Anderson said. He added that people should keep surfaces clean, wash their hands, not touch their faces and if they’re sick, stay home — don’t go to work and don’t go out in public, he said.

Those are the steps “we’re relying on” stop COVID-19 from spread further.

“I think we can’t say it too often,” Anderson said.